Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — To say that the Singapore Biennale is important would be an understatement. Outside of whether or not it presents the “best art” Southeast Asia has to offer at any given time, there is also the fact that State-funded as it is, a larger group of art critics and writers are invited for this biennale more than others, which ideally ensures a discursive practice that is about a productive exchange between critics, curators, artists, and art institutions in SEA.
But of course this is a time when everyone is presumed to be a critic, and many art events have fallen into the quagmire of believing that social media statuses, Instagram photos, and lifestyle and travel writing are equal to constructive critique. The SG Biennale is no exception, standing as it has on arguably shaky ground in its past two incarnations, but especially in 2016’s “Atlas Of Mirrors.” Sure, it had the requisite commissioned works that proved Instagram-worthy — giving the biennale some positive social media mileage (never mind that these were the installations that literally had an amalgamation of mirrors) — but the general consensus, at least among critics, was that this biennale was weighed down by a concept so unstable it failed to speak to and of the art, practically burying it completely in the excess of explanations.
It is in this sense that the Singapore Biennale’s artistic director for 2019, Patrick Flores, curator of the University of the Philippines’ Vargas Museum and professor of art studies, has his work cut out for him. Which is to say that given the proper amount of time and appropriate budget, his insistence on research and historicity vis a vis plotting contemporary art might be exactly what the biennale needs at this point. That is, if the goal is to continue to speak of it as an important event both for Singapore and Asia, even more so if the task is to continue to problematize, analyze, and unpack what contemporary art actually means for the region, beyond the oft-celebrated art market and the dime-a-dozen art fair.
This of course might be seen as nothing more than wishful thinking, but in conversation with Flores, one finds hope in the fact that at the very least, the proposal that got him this post is one that’s unique in its intention: to wrest the biennale from the art world, and take it back to history.
“One of the reasons why I was surprised to have been chosen as artistic director is because I thought they wouldn’t give it to me, as I’m too academic. Because that’s my trajectory, I deal with the contemporary through art history. I don’t elide that,” he says.
His own proposal for the Singapore Biennale takes from a mid-1970s exhibition by Rey Albano entitled “Roots, Basics, Beginnings,” which sought to raise public consciousness about contemporary art within the confines of the museum as a developmental institution. “There was no education then, so in the exhibit, Albano explained through a question-and-answer format what produces the contemporary, by answering what roots, basics, and beginnings are for contemporary art.”
For Albano, roots are about where artists come from, such as context and culture and education; basics is the medium and how artists use it; and beginnings is the risk artists take when they start going against the rules of the roots and the basics. Flores takes from Albano the necessity to ask and answer questions about the contemporary, as he does take from Albano’s imagination of a festival. “The biennale will be festive, which also comes from Albano because he thinks of the exhibition as a festival. Not in the way it’s used in tourism, but in the sense that in terms of materiality it is closer to everyday life.”
Flores merges this with what Joseph Beuys says about the museum being a site of an ongoing seminar, a permanent conference. “It will be festive, but also reflective. I want a biennale that is a cross between a festival and a seminar so that discourse ceases to be an afterthought to the art, and is instead a part of it.”
Flores is not using roots, basics, beginnings as a thematic anchor, nor as end goal. Instead he is using it as mere starting point for further research, towards the creation of a stable frame for the biennale. This is to say that he is aware of the limits of thematization and the trap of easy representation that Asian biennales tend to fall into, so instead of proposing a frame or theme at the onset, he is using the opportunity to do research and build upon art history.
“I think the task now is to deepen the discussion and move beyond thematization,” he says. “That’s why my proposal was open, because I think we should give research a chance. The frame will be found through research.”
That strong framework is what has been found lacking in the recent incarnations of the SG biennale, but also other biennales that speak of Southeast Asian and Asian art. And while the frame for the 2019 biennale has yet to be developed, it is clear even at this point what makes Flores’s vision for it distinct.
“I think there is still a belief that the biennale as a platform should give the region its deserved profile,” says Flores. “They still think that the region has to be accounted for.”
In the end what surfaces are biennales that are simply about representation and not much else, which is problematic in itself. “Because representation tends to be provincial. There’s always a center, and there’s this underrepresented region that we need to account for. That might have been true in the ‘90s, but not in 2018.”
The premise of Flores’s foray into finding that frame is a region that has already been profiled and considered, and has claimed its rightful place in art discourse and history. “I’m saying that we’re strong, we’re confident, discourse is dense, scholarship is there. I think that is the ground of the biennale,” he says. Which is not to say he will evade representation — an impossibility, really — but that in his hands, it will not be a mere survey of contemporary art, as it will be a problematization of the question of representation, especially in relation to the notion of the region.
“The Singapore Biennale is committed largely to including art from Southeast Asia. But of course Southeast Asia is also south and east Asia. So South Asia would include countries like India and Sri Lanka, and East Asia would mean China, Korea, Japan, Taiwan,” Flores says. “We will speak to that desire of the biennale to extend beyond ASEAN, but I want a framework for it. If we extend, how do we extend?”
In the course of the conversation, he would flesh this out further towards more interesting geographic trajectories and specificities. Asked about the idea of ASEAN integration and whether that is part of the frame he imagines, Flores expounds. “I don’t think it plays out given the goal of expanding Southeast Asia beyond the confines of the ASEAN — which is a geopolitical category after all. Pre-1967, the region was geographically broader. Southeast Asia was seen to be South of China, East of India, North of Australia.”
He adds, “If that is the configuration, we’re looking at a far broader area and a different set of possibilities for engagements and similarities. For example that would make the Philippines closer to Taipei and Hong Kong instead of to Singapore or Jakarta; Darwin (Australia) would be closer to maybe Jogjakarta.”
This would, by default, be a decentering project of sorts, removing the notion of a Southeast Asian “center” and highlighting the possibility that what was center ceases to be so within a larger geographic space. But Flores also speaks of another possibility for decentering that is just as interesting: “I want to look at the possibilities for including maybe the southern parts of the countries, maybe Okinawa in Japan, and Guangzhou in China. Or include a place like Goa, instead of Delhi, in India, Or Colombo in Sri Lanka, and Lahore in Pakistan. I want to step into those places that have fallen off the map, so to speak.”
And to cast an even wider net, there is also the diaspora to be considered, where roots need not be confined to nation, nor citizenship, but could also be heritage by way of descent.
The enormity of the work seems overwhelming, but Flores falls back on what he knows to be true: that research and history will provide the necessary frame for curating works — and by extension countries, spaces, and artists — thoughtfully and carefully, the act of selection informed as well by the task to take back the biennale from the art world.
“I think more and more the biennale has become an art world thing, an echo chamber of collectors, curators, artists,” Flores says. “I want to bring it closer to a larger social sphere, which requires that we go back and explain to this public what is happening in the contemporary work. That was one impulse for proposing roots, basics, and beginnings as entry point.”
Alongside art history, he is also keen on seeing how public engagement might be done within the exhibition, instead of as a programming initiative that is separate from it. “Usually, the public program is a response to the exhibition, but I don’t want the separation of the public program from the exhibition program. I want the public program to be embedded in the exhibition. For instance, through a performative archive, or some kind of installation that is interactive, that’s discursive.” The idea of a continuous seminar or permanent conference also works in relation to this task, where a conference speaks to a public by default, and includes that public in the discursive practice that is in art.
This aspect of Flores’ proposal for the Singapore Biennale is also interesting in light of the aforementioned predisposition to believe that public participation is equal to social media mileage, which points to a penchant for spectacle and pageantry and not necessarily about art or its making. Flores though is more magnanimous with regards to this “development” in the art scene.
“The spectacle can be an entry point to that larger social sphere — the public might not be so aware of art history, but they can relate to spectacle,” he says. He admits though to the complexity of the public participative project. “Public participation is really tricky, but we have to address that desire for spectacle. I’m sure there will be monolithic objects [in this biennale] but I’m also sure that these will be chosen well. I don’t think those should be necessarily contradictory to the biennale’s project, and after all, the spectacle can be seen as part of the contemporary. In that sense, it’s about the challenge of mediating the spectacle.”
Mediation is also key to the 2019 Singapore Biennale, given the multifarious factors that come into play in its making. For one thing, next year’s biennale will be aligned with the commemoration of Sir Stamford Raffles’ 1819 landing in Singapore which, according to Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, made Singapore “a British colony, a free port, and a modern city.” This of course might be easily linked to the current imagining of Singapore as a creative city, which events like the biennale create and reiterate. There is also censorship in Singapore, always a valid question to ask given its cultural projects.
Flores take it all in stride. “I don’t think the Raffles celebration will co-opt the project, though we will necessarily speak to it,” he says. The biennale after all is also part of the project of making the city. “I’m sure there are benefits for the city in terms of bringing in people, and in terms of tourism. But all things being equal, when there is culture, prestige is raised for the city. It’s not just about the industrial and commercial after all, but also about the creative.”
“Censorship meanwhile is a pre-existing constraint, and is a part of the material conditions.” Instead of testing its limits, Flores opts to see the bigger picture. “I’m a curator who doesn’t really spoil for a fight. I can calibrate. I would rather that no one work overdetermines the biennale because it’s become controversial, as it is unfair to the other works that are there.”
He adds: “But of course that’s not to blunt the edge of what you want to say. It’s a matter of choosing works that are more highly mediated. For those that are more direct, maybe it’s not for Singapore. This is not the only place where they can show their work after all.”
This awareness of the material conditions that surround the creation of a biennale, and the insistence that there is still important discursive space here to navigate and negotiate within, is what makes Flores’ artistic directorship something to look forward to. Using art history as premise, and roots, basics, beginnings as entry point, while expanding on notions of region and representation, and considering the possibilities for public involvement and spectacle, this biennale, at the very least, promises a different lens through which we might view artmaking and creativity in Asia. It also allows the possibility of actually seeing Asia for its intellectual rigor and political involvement through art, especially given the current socio-political climate.
“In the course of the research, I think we will see how artists in the region respond to this [state of] crisis,” Flores says. “But I’d rather look at responsiveness instead of relevance, as the latter has been a bit coopted by certain socio-political expectations. When we say responsiveness, we mean an awareness of what is happening in the world, the talent to think through, the commitment to take action.”
Asked about the value of the biennale at this point in time, he goes back to his premise of art history. “I think this is an opportunity to deal with the question of the global, to cross the nation-state borders, [which also addresses] forms of extreme nationalism. Maybe we can develop a more productive idea of the international and the global, in the sense that this is can also be seen as an archive of the history of art, where instead of it being nation-based, it is complicated by the high level of relations among geographies.”
As curator, Flores admits to the excitement that biennales bring, even as he acknowledges the anti-biennale discourse that exists. “For some curators, a biennale is an exciting moment, a display of different curatorial intelligences that changes every two years. Its scale brings a level of unpredictability as it iterates across time, with convergences and intersectionality. So it’s always an expectant moment.”
It is also a highly expectant moment for art critics and writers, artists, and curators, who have seen and experienced the lack of rigor in Asian biennales past, in Singapore and elsewhere. And while Flores might not have any fixed frame or theme at this point, the breadth and scope of this conversation, the problematization of concepts, and the importance given research and history, are all steps in the right direction.
Is this wishful thinking?
He had me at taking the biennale back from the art world.